Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Note: I am indebted to +Tom Wright for the thesis of this sermon.
Here is a little test case for you. How you answer it will give you great insight into your resurrection faith (or lack of it) and help you see what, if anything, you need to work on to grow in grace and faith by the power of the Spirit. It will also help you assess how well you might be able to witness to your faith when called on to do so. If we are to be faithful witnesses to Christ in today’s world, it is critical that we have a solid Scriptural basis for our witness and firmly embrace our story through our actions. After all, if we do not believe our own story, how can we expect others to believe it?
So here’s the scenario. You are at work one day when a colleague of yours, who happens to be an unbeliever, approaches you. He tells you politely but firmly that he has heard you are a Christian and that bothers him because it means you must believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead in general—and all that that entails. He tells you he is aware of passages like Acts 4.12 from today’s NT lesson that proclaim there is salvation in no other name but Jesus’ and that offends him, especially because he does not believe in Jesus’ resurrection. He therefore concludes that you basically think he is going to be consigned to hell because he doesn’t believe in the name of Jesus, at least in the way you do. “How can you believe in a faith that puts itself above all others?” he asks you. “How incredibly arrogant and intolerant of other faiths is that? And what about good people like myself who act better than most Christians I know? Are you telling me that they’re in and I’m out? I am offended by that too.” How do you respond to him? Do you know how to respond to him as a faithful Christian?
To help us craft an answer to this challenge to the central tenet of our faith, we need to look at what is going on behind the challenge; and to do that, a good place to start is our NT lesson this morning. Why would the chief priests and Sadducees be so irritated with Peter and John preaching the resurrection of the dead in general and Jesus’ resurrection in particular? As +Tom Wright observes, “Wouldn’t it be simply great to know that God was alive and well and providing a wonderful rescue operation through his Messiah?” Why have various groups throughout history found the resurrection to be so scandalous and offensive—including today’s enemies of the faith who sneer at both the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and those who believe it really did happen the way the NT reports?
To answer this question, we must always remember what the first Christians and NT writers meant when they talked about resurrection and salvation. As we have seen over the last three weeks, when the first Christians talked about resurrection, they had in mind bodily resurrection, not some new form of spiritual existence or survival. They believed this because they also believed that God was going to put to rights once and for all everything that is broken and wrong with his world so that it would finally be the good creation God has always intended it to be, but which human sin and the evil that ensued had corrupted. In other words, they saw Jesus’ resurrection as being the first sign of God acting in a spectacular but unexpected way to bring about his promised new creation where he would rescue us from all that has gone wrong in the world, especially from death. Just as Jesus’ resurrection body was now impervious to death, so it was an advance sign that death would be banished forever when God fully implemented the new creation. It’s critical that we keep this in our minds because in it is our answer to the critics of Christianity with its claim that salvation comes from no one but Jesus.
Similarly, when the first Christians used the term salvation, they meant primarily being rescued from something. That’s what the Greek noun in today’s passage, soteria, means. For the first Christians salvation meant being rescued ultimately from evil, sin, and death, and they saw this being accomplished in Jesus’ resurrection. For the earliest Christians, then, salvation was not so much being saved so that they could go to heaven. It was being saved from all the evils of this world, especially death, and Jesus’ resurrection for them was proof that God had acted decisively on their behalf to do just that. Of course, they didn’t believe that the new creation had come in full, but that in Jesus’ resurrection, God had begun to establish it and they would eventually enjoy it in full, just like Jesus was enjoying it now. We saw this echoed in last week’s epistle lesson from John when he wrote how we would become like Jesus when he reappeared to us to usher in fully God’s new creation.
So what’s not to like about that? Why did the chief priests and Sadducees (and a vast majority of power-brokers ever since) find this teaching so offensive? Because there was no guarantee that in God’s coming new creation they would retain their positions of power, status, and privilege. In fact, if they were familiar with any of Jesus teachings about the kingdom, they would have had every reason to think otherwise. It’s that “first will be last and last will be first” thingy that Jesus had an annoying habit of repeating in some of his parables (cf. Luke 13.29-30; Matthew 19.29-30; Mark 10.30-32). That—combined with Peter and John’s reference of Psalm 118 with its allusions to the Temple and the clear implication, in their minds at least, that Jesus was the new Temple who would make the current one redundant (is this one of the passages Jesus shared with them from last week’s gospel lesson?)—was enough to really make the authorities angry and get the disciples arrested.
To make things even worse, believers in the resurrection have always tended to cause trouble for the authorities of their day because we tend to have this annoying habit (like our Master) of calling into question the things that are wrong with the world and its rulers. We are constantly acting on Jesus’ behalf and under his authority (as Peter and John were in today’s passage when they had healed the lame man) to bring about advance signs of God’s judgment on all the wrongs of this world by seeking to put them to rights, e.g., feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, etc. And if we are killed because of our beliefs and actions, what does it ultimately matter to us? We believe God will raise us from the dead one day so Caesar has little or no leverage on us. The doctrine of the resurrection has always been dangerously subversive precisely because it is a clear signal to the powers and principalities—and those who work for them, either wittingly or unwittingly—that their day is done and their goose is cooked. Let me put it this way. Jesus told us to love our enemies, but first we have to make some. Proclaiming our belief in the resurrection has always been a good way to do that.
Which brings us back to our little scenario at the beginning of this sermon. If you have followed what I have just said, you see the same dynamics at work behind the questions and challenge because the values represented in it reflect the prevailing values of today’s modernist thinking in our society with its rejection of the resurrection and its emphasis on moral relativism and tolerance at any cost. Like the chief priests and Sadducees of Peter and John’s day, these modernist voices, and the forces they represent, are in the driver’s seat and do not want to give up their position of power either, and for the same reasons. There’s no assurance they will keep their current position of power in the new creation and so they seek to silence such talk!
But our answer to our critics must be the same as Peter and John’s precisely because Jesus’ resurrection is unique in history as well as his claims of being the way in which God will establish his kingdom on earth, the new creation, as in heaven. No other religion makes this claim and it is either true or it isn’t. Of course, if we know the risen Lord and have a relationship with him, we know his claims are true. That is why we must do our part to cultivate our relationship with Jesus through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship with other Christians so that we can hear his voice clearly as he promised and faithfully proclaim our resurrection hope. After all, just because some Christians have at times misapplied and abused the truth of the resurrection doesn’t mean we have to do likewise or consign its truth to the trash heap. When answering our critics and their charges against us that we are arrogant and intolerant, our response must be the same as it was in the first century: Only one resurrection. Only one Jesus. Who else can rescue us the way in which Jesus has? No one else has made that claim! How is the resurrection and the hope behind it exclusive when everyone is invited to the party?
Make no mistake. This will take courage and grace on our part and we had better be prepared to bear the full brunt of our critics’ fury. As we have seen, the powers and principalities (and those who do business with them) do not like to have their authority challenged and the resurrection does so on steroids. So the first thing we might do before we answer any question posed to us, whether from friend or foe, is to call to mind Psalm 23 and the intimate fellowship with the Lord it promises. Remembering that the Lord is with us will help us to answer questions about our faith with charity and grace. It will also help remind us that we are speaking to others in the power of the Spirit, just like Peter and John did when they were challenged to give an account of their faith.
Of course, if we ever hope to provide a faithful answer to questions about the resurrection from skeptics and seekers alike, we must also know our Scripture and the story it tells, and be able to articulate our own hope of new creation. Like anything else, if we wish to be ready to give an account to anyone about our faith, we had better spend some time thinking about and rehearsing it, both individually and together. If you are not willing to do that, it is time to ask yourself some hard questions about your own faith and about your willingness to follow Jesus by denying yourself and taking up your cross every day. That’s why our answer in the given scenario is such a good self-check for each of us because it helps us assess the state our relationship with Jesus and our knowledge of the most important tenet of our faith. If we don’t know Jesus very well or we really don’t know what to believe or think about his resurrection, we simply will not be effective in talking to other people about it, and talking to them about it is one of our prime directives (cf. Matthew 28.16-20)!
And, of course, we provide an effective witness to our resurrection faith by what we do, which, as John points out in today’s epistle lesson, is the best way we can witness our faith in the risen Christ to others. The Christian faith did not spread like wild fire in the first century because all of Christ’s people were eloquent spokesmen and women. It spread because unlike most of their contemporaries, the first Christians were willing and eager to get their hands dirty and work to put to right the things that were wrong in their neck of the woods. They were willing to show mercy and compassion to unlovable people, and to feed the hungry and visit the lonely, to name a few. They were also fearless in challenging the ruling authorities of their day, especially when the authorities put themselves in opposition to their risen Christ. They did all this precisely because they were resurrection people who embraced its hope and promise of new creation. I think that is the main reason why Christianity has lost its punch today. Many Christians have lost their resurrection hope! But that isn’t going to happen at St. Augustine’s. We are a resurrection people and we act accordingly!
So when you are asked to give an accounting of your faith, how will you respond? How did you respond to the test this morning? Remember, it is not our place to tell anyone who is in and who is out. But as we have seen this morning, that’s not even the question the resurrection addresses with its hope of salvation! Neither are we to use our resurrection hope as a weapon to beat up others or as a reason to act smugly over them because we have something they don’t. No, we are to answer all questions lovingly and with honesty and great humility because we have something that is too good not to share with others. After all, if we love them why would we want to withhold the hope and promise of new creation that Jesus’ resurrection heralds? Does not compute! Given that the powers and principalities are currently in charge, this task will not be easy and we must be ready to bear the cost. But we do not fear because we know the Good Shepherd and believe he is at work in us in the power of the Spirit to guide us (and others) into all truth and righteousness. This is God’s good gift to us and we can rejoice in it because we know that resurrection and its promise of new creation is awaiting not only us but all who decide to put their whole hope and trust in Christ. And that, of course, means we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.